During the past two years, and under the tutelage of Hollywood script analyst Michael Ray Brown, I’ve been writing, rewriting, and revising my fourth feature-length screenplay called A Beautiful Unlife.
Its very first draft, the first 30 pages of which I co-wrote with long-time friend and collaborator Joe Whelski, was a straight up comedy, which isn’t my forte. In its first major rewrite, the story made the leap from lowbrow laughs to Citizen Kane. Drafts three and four brought it somewhere in the middle of this chain of extremes, and by the fifth and now sixth draft, it’s finally nestled snugly in the comfort zone of what A Beautiful Unlife is actually meant to be––a darkly comedic vampire film.
Now granted, two years isn’t a long time to work on a screenplay, but for a poet and short filmmaker like myself, keeping my attention poised on a single project for that long and seeing it through to its sixth inception is quite a triumph! I’ve only written three other feature-length scripts in my time, one of which was a short feature (about 50 pages), the other two just exercises (though I didn’t think that then) that only ever reached a second draft and are now boxed up in my brother’s dungeon, their computer-generated counterparts long since erased.
Being a self-taught screenwriter, I looked to various screenwriting books to help guide my way. When I’d written my very first screenplay for Alain Aguilar’s film Cog, I only had one blueprint to go by, Alan Ball’s screenplay for American Beauty. Later on I eventually read Syd Field’s Screenplay, what was back then the screenwriter’s Bible. In recent years, I’ve also paged through a plethora of other books, namely Robert McKee’s Story and Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno, but I found that they all just regurgitate the same information in Screenplay, just a slight bit differently.
But during my rewrite of A Beautiful Unlife and from revisiting these renowned books, I found that these same books, when taken too much for Gospel, can brighten the wonderfully dark corridors of the labyrinth of a screenplay so intensely that a writer can forget the joy of finding one’s own way out of that darkness with just a torch.
That was the case with me; I was worrying too much about logistics and not enough about my characters and the story they wanted to tell. As a result, I became stifled, uninspired, and couldn’t write. More so, I even avoided working on the rewrite for a few weeks. Then I decided to let myself go, like I had done with my first rewrite, which had earned a “qualified consider” from Michael, and to not worry about plot points and composition and just write. Write from my gut, from my soul, from whatever you want to call it. And when it was all writ and reread, everything was in place, including a brand new ending that made sense, and I made it out of this maze by writing from the fire in my gut, not from the fluorescent tubes of my brain, which should be reserved for revision and polishing, not writing or rewriting.
This little anecdote reminds me of a helpful nugget of insight I discovered last October at the 2009 Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles. As screenwriters, we all have a tendency to get hung up on the most unimportant aspects of the craft (Should I use all caps for sound effects? and How do I format phone conversations? are two questions that spring to mind.) The number one emphasis still is and always will be story. I heard it from Michael and at least five other seminar instructors: Producers couldn’t care less if your second plot point happens on page 28 or 38; they only want to keep turning pages.
I’ll conclude with this: Write from the soul of your story and you’ll never go wrong. And in terms of books, the only book every screenwriter needs to fully digest is one that’ll teach you nothing about screenwriting but everything about story (no, not Aristotle’s Poetics, although it comes in at a close second!) It’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Every character goes on the same journey, from King Oedipus to Luke Skywalker, from Bill and Ted to Basil in A Beautiful Unlife. It’s a pretty safe bet that this model is never going to change.
Every other book out there––and there are plenty I haven’t mentioned––when taken with a grain of salt, is gravy.